Security for Me and My Own: Land Demarcation and Preventing Gender-Based Violence in Uganda

This post originally appeared on IUCN

In eastern Uganda, where the land is governed by a customary land tenure system, up to 80 percent of unmarried or divorced women who reported land conflicts had experienced violence when claiming their land rights.1

This problem is not unique to Uganda. Across the globe, research indicates that unequal land tenure “affects women’s ability to access, use, control, and benefit from land,” thereby limiting women’s economic empowerment and financial security.2 In many cases, women may be unaware of their rights to land, lack the documentation necessary to exercise those rights, or live in societies where social norms inhibit women’s access to land.

Studies have shown that a woman who holds land may be perceived as a threat to the existing gender norms and power structures within the community. Men who feel that their power is being threatened can target women to keep them in a place of fear and dependence. As a result, women experience gender-based violence (GBV) to dissuade them from exercising their land rights or threaten their existing property rights.

Decision-making in customary land tenure systems are often made by men and in favor of men,  creating a dangerous cocktail of inequality that ensures unmarried women,  women who have separated from their husbands, and widows face challenges in owning and maintaining control over land. 

When women lack a male head of the household and face land conflicts, they are at risk of experiencing GBV. Land conflicts in Uganda often arise when widows try to exercise their land rights. Widows face verbal harassment and physical violence, including having their hands bound or being beaten, forcing them to choose between their own safety or their land.

Hear from Lillian on how a RISE project in Uganda will address land rights to address gender-based violence.

“My life was threatened by my nephew, [who] promised to physically harm me and emotionally abused me over a land boundary.”

However, linkages between increased women’s land rights and other development outcomes are context specific.  Land tenure and property rights interventions shift long-standing social and power dynamics at the community and family level. A woman who holds land may also experience increased status and bargaining power within a community or household, which can lead to increased economic empowerment and less violent outcomes.

In the Bukedea and Katakwi districts in Eastern Uganda, Trócaire, a faith-based agency, is partnering with Land Equity Movement of Uganda (LEMU) and Soroti Catholic Diocese Integrated Development Organization (SOCADIDO) to implement the Securing Land Rights and Ending Gender Exclusion (SLEDGE) Project. The project aims to improve women’s land tenure and property rights, address power imbalances between men and women, and respond to GBV. This work is funded by USAID’s Resilient, Inclusive, and Sustainable Environments (RISE) challenge, inspired by IUCN’s research to address GBV in environmental programs.3

In the Katakwi District of Uganda, a 70-year-old unmarried woman by the name of Sarah4 shares a piece of land with her two sons, one adopted and one biological, as well as their wives and children. While Sarah was given this land decades ago from her father’s family, like many women, she lacked formal land boundaries and documentation of the exact size and location of her property.

In 2017, one of Sarah’s nephews encroached onto her land by three meters and claimed that the boundary between the two properties goes through one of the huts of Sarah’s adopted son’s home. Sarah’s nephew responded to this boundary conflict by verbally and emotionally abusing her, insulting her, and threatening physical harm to her. He used GBV as a method of control to try and prevent her from exercising her rights over her own property, property that she had owned since “before he was even born.”

In a first attempt to address the issue with her nephew, Sarah went to a Local Council Court where the court and clan leaders used a mediation method to try and settle the dispute. While Sarah was able to share her opinion and call some witnesses, the process ultimately failed to resolve the problem and the threats and verbal abuse continued. It wasn’t until September 2020 when Sarah attended an awareness-raising meeting by the SLEDGE Project that she finally found a lasting solution to the problem that had been “emotionally torturing” her for three years.  

The meeting was intended to popularize the concept of land documentation and demarcation by highlighting its advantages, explaining the steps, and teaching people how to access the service.  The Project adopted a new approach to marking land that utilizes the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the MYGPS application to define coordinates around demarcation areas. This helps prevent boundary conflicts by reducing inaccuracies and creating permanent coordinates for land that cannot be manipulated or otherwise altered once local parties have agreed on them.

For Sarah, this improved land demarcation process was an opportunity to not only provide a lasting solution to her conflict with her nephew, but also protect the land for her children and grandchildren for decades to come. “The boundary marks would provide [me] security,” Sarah explained, and would “prevent conflicts that would arise in the future.”

Sarah shared her interest in land demarcation with a clan leader and the Project team, and she was asked to invite her neighbors and children to participate in the demarcation. When that day arrived, she shared her family’s information and they conducted a walk-through of the land and pointed out the boundaries of her property.

When Sarah’s nephew brought up his conflict, the clan, community activists, and Project team conducted an on-the-spot resolution. After hearing from both parties and the neighbors, they determined that the three meters of land were rightfully Sarah’s, and the nephew eventually agreed to the resolution. The Project team used MYGPS to capture coordinates and planted trees as boundary markers. When the process concluded, Sarah was given a map showing the boundaries of her land, which included her neighbors’ signatures in agreement. She stores the map with another document that shows she, her sons, and her grandchildren have rights over the land.

“[As a result of the land demarcation process,] I feel my land is secure and free from potential encroachers. It will [ensure that] my children live in harmony with our neighbors even after the lord calls me.”

Sarah is not alone in her story of owning land and still facing land insecurity and threats of GBV from family members or neighbors. One GBV-ENV survey found that 45 percent of respondents reported that while men and women in their countries have equal rights to own land and property, customary laws and norms are unequal.5 It is these inequalities that create an atmosphere in which men feel threatened by women exercising rights over their land and use GBV as a method of control. The SLEDGE project and other organizations doing similar work in countries across the globe are finding ways to create enabling environments that support women’s increased land tenure security, while not jeopardizing their safety. 

  1. LEMU-IDRC 2017
  2.  United States Agency for International Development (USAID) (2016). United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally.
  3.  Castañeda Camey, I., Sabater, L., Owren, C. and Boyer, A.E. (2020). Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality. Wen, J. (ed.). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 272pp. At:
  4.  Name has been changed.
  5.  Castañeda Camey, I., Sabater, L., Owren, C. and Boyer, A.E. (2020). Gender-based violence and environment linkages: The violence of inequality. Wen, J. (ed.). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 272pp. At:
This story was developed by Resonance with inputs from Trocaire. Quotes were shared by participants engaged in the project who have provided consent for publishing and were collected by Trocaire. All photo credits in this story belong to Trocaire.
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